On a sunny but chilly Friday morning just before Thanksgiving six years ago this month I was busy sweating out some stress with my running partner, an elliptical trainer parked in my basement workout room. Minutes into the workout the phone rang. You know. The call you hope never to receive.
On the other end, a travel agent from Oregon calmly told me my mother-in-law had suffered a stroke while touring in the south of France. How is she? “We can’t tell you. HIPAA rules apply. We need a faxed power of attorney before releasing any more information”. I knew that 1996 law, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, was written to help keep medical records under wraps from prying eyes. A good idea, but small comfort when you know the first question your wife will ask. Is she OK?
The travel agent was professional and sympathetic. My mother-in-law was alive. She instructed me to call “On Call,” a Salem, New Hampshire company that acts as a facilitator for insurance companies providing coverage for travelers faced with a medical emergency. That’s where I faxed a Power of Attorney. They took over the case.
On the spot, I learned two things I will not soon forget. There is a helping hand out there. And a good travel insurance policy will pay for that hand to shake yours. You see in forty years of world travel, I have never taken out travel insurance. I considered it a rip-off. My more practical mother in-law spent just a hundred bucks for evacuation and partial medical coverage to cover a tour of France. What she received was worth a lot more.
But first, the quick drive to my wife’s office to give her the bad news in person. A call may be quicker, but a phone can’t put an arm around your loved one when she needs it most. By chance her brother was there. He rushed home to get the power of attorney. We booked the next flight to Nice, and were airborne in three hours. “On Call” offered to help book the flight.
After an agonizing fifteen hour overnight flight we arrived in Nice, and drove directly to the hospital. Our fear soon turned to hope. My mother- in-law was indeed alive and awake, although tired and groggy. That’s the good news. The bad news? We met her first Doctor.
You see France practices socialized medicine, and her doctors were believers. Free medical attention is provided by the government, regardless of class. But it is slow. That fact was driven home to my wife when she asked when tests would be run. “Perhaps a week, perhaps two.” When my wife complained, the good Doctor responded, “You Americans think you can always go to the head of the line. Not here”. Through tears, my wife said she wanted prompt tests not because she was American, but she was a daughter. And she asked how the doctor could recommend treatment without tests. Un-moved, the doctor simply turned and walked away.
We had cause for concern. The lady in the next bed, diagnosed with a possible stroke, had already been waiting more than three months for tests.
So we flew home to San Francisco to wait. Over the next two weeks I worked the phones constantly with “On Call” to facilitate tests and make arrangements for her safe return. Here’s a little secret. Get the Doctor to write a prescription for First Class travel with a nurse, and insurance picks up the tab. If necessary, airlines put curtains around sections of the plane for privacy. (Yes. Sometimes airlines do care.)
Finally “On Call” told us her Doctor would indeed release her in time to be home the day before Thanksgiving, something I was promised before I left France. The doctor also promised to consider First Class, a concern to a daughter whose stroke suffering mother was facing a long flight home.
So I flew back to France to oversee arrangements. On arrival I found there was a mix-up. By the time the doctor actually got around to writing the prescription for release and travel, there were no medical seats left on the plane that would get her home before Thanksgiving. (Airlines only permit one passenger traveling with oxygen per flight.)
“On Call” had subcontracted with “Fox Flight”, a Canadian firm that flies registered nurses around the world to facilitate patient evacuations. A professional nurse arrived from Canada and took over. He gathered medical records and prescriptions. Then we waited another day for the doctor to finally sign the release. Call me a French basher, but I will always believe the delay was an intentional attempt to teach us Americans a lesson in patience. (I took it, by using the extra time to drive down the coast for lunch at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.)
The French may have socialized medicine, but their hospital administrators must be capitalists. They claimed to take major credit cards, but every time we tried to pay charges with them, they claimed “the system was down.” They really wanted cash. Our Canadian nurse said that “run-around” happens all the time in French hospitals.
Finally my mother-in-law was released at dawn on Thanksgiving Day. We just walked out and let the insurance company handle payment. British Airways jumped through hoops to help, getting us on the next flight. Yes, in First Class. Insurance paid for nurse and patient. I was on my own.
Thanks to the time change, we made it home Thanksgiving night. Dinner was cold but no one seemed to mind. Mom was back, and already on the long road to recovery. She is now much better. And we have much to be thankful for.
I learned a lot. Always have a Power of Attorney in place. Make sure your travel insurance covers evacuation and full medical coverage. And don’t get sick in France.
(Brian Banmiller is a national Business Reporter for CBS News Radio, and former television business news anchor in San Francisco.)
This article was originally published on November 24, 2017.
CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.